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So, A Couple Arrives at the Gates of Heaven, and–

Light and Salt

Last week I re-posted a joke on Facebook about a couple arriving in heaven after a fatal car crash.  They wonder whether they can get married in heaven, and ask  St. Peter.  St. Peter says  he doesn’t  know, but he’ll go find out.  The couple at the gate waits a long time (maybe an eternity), and while they pass the time, they begin to wonder if it’s possible to get a divorce in heaven.  When St. Peter finally returns, they ask him, but he blows his stack on hearing their second question.  Turns out it took him all that time to find even one priest of whom to ask the first, and he wasn’t about to go haring off all over heaven to find yet another priest to answer the couple’s second question.

I hesitated before re-posting this joke, because I have a number of clergy friends on Facebook, and I’m not sure how seriously most of them take themselves, secretly or not.

The joke is probably lost on anyone who, in response,  wants to quote the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is said to have said that after the resurrection of all souls, people will not marry, but be like the angels in heaven.  And the joke is likely a puzzlement to anyone who has grown up without the cultural lore about St. Peter.  Who he?

But for anyone who has been disappointed in a church community, or anyone who has been betrayed by clergy, or anyone who suffers  from the habitual judgmental stance of church people across the board of denominations, this is a bitter joke and meant to be so.

You can bet the joke didn’t originate with clergy.  And I bet the joke didn’t start from a conversation of two people in the church, clergy or not.   Probably,  the joke started with people who once were church people and have walked away, perhaps for reasons of sanity.   Heck–even clergy have left on that score.  And of course this isn’t the only joke of its kind.

I think the joke is as full of pins and needles as the Scarecrow’s head before he met the Wizard.  Heaven.  Really?  When is that, and what?  Marriage? Why? And what’s with a gate that shuts people out after death?   Not to be too literal about it, but has anyone taken stock of the layers of insider knowledge required to make sense of this joke, let alone provide laughter?

So, ok, lighten up, it’s a Christian insiders’ joke.  Aren’t Christians allowed to have insider jokes?

Well, I rather think not.  Churchy people can claim insider status and they regularly do, using language that outsiders don’t understand, but since Christians are supposed to be salt and light in the world, I don’t believe their identity should lodge in any exclusivity at all.  Christians who are drawn to defending some or all aspects of the institution have, in effect, accomplished a very strange thing, actually unheard of–they have become salt that has lost its taste.  They are circling the wagons of tradition to hold the light in, defending their peculiarities from the world’s observation or hoping to justify themselves in the world’s eyes.

There’s  another thing about Christian insider jokes.  Understanding them depends on learning a vast amount of  complicated knowledge, much of it interesting history, but nearly all of it completely unnecessary to daily life anywhere in the world.  To make that irrelevant knowledge requisite for true Christian living and leadership is to forfeit the patience and good will of people in the world.

Christians can’t fix the way the world sees the church–any part of it.  It’s not their job to fix anyone, anyhow.  When you are salt, you don’t get to tell the person whose food is on the table whether or not to use you, or how much salt works in a dish of chili.  If you are salt, that’s all you are.  The person who needs salt and finds what is needed, takes as much as is necessary, or as little as the blood pressure can stand.  Salt has no say.  When you are light, if you mistake yourself for being the lamp, you think a lot about being turned off and on, or about the kind of light bulb  you believe would work best.  Christians aren’t the source of light–ever.  It’s too bad so many of them regularly  understand themselves as conducting light, leading them to think they are closer to the power source than people who are seeing by the light.   Light does not dictate what I can see, whether I am reading People Magazine or looking at a man at an intersection holding a piece of cardboard saying “Homeless. Anything will help.”

The thing about salt and light that is difficult for anyone invested in church itself, is the diffuse nature of either one when effective.  The sad thing about Christian insider jokes that isn’t often articulated is the fact that we think we can still remember when most people in our society shared our cultural awareness of Christian beliefs, standards, behaviors, and furthermore, shared our sense of value in all those cultural markers.  ‘Everybody knew’  Roman Catholics focused on guilt, and Reformed Protestants wouldn’t dance or smoke, and Episcopalians drank, and hats and white gloves were tickets to respectability in every congregation.  If many in the world now consider Christians to be irrelevant (at best), might not that be due to the totally irrelevant things that church people said were essential?

These days, much is being made among people doing the heavy, cutting edge thinking and speaking for everybody else in the church, about ‘being missional.’  That’s a churchy term for figuring out how to be relevant again as Christians,  in larger society.  I am interested in the fact that bitter jokes like this one about priests in heaven, appear in social media at the same time that prominent Christian clergy, like Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, are focusing Christians on joining a Jesus Movement.  Maybe the joke is a slant kind of question.  Will the church make the same mistakes in this century that she has made in all the centuries previous?

What’s an example of a church mistake? Going beyond all the ready accusations,  I’d say it’s a mistake to expect being missional to be about the lamp, the light bulb and whether or not Celtic gray salt is as acceptable as French flake or Himalayan pink.   There are better questions.  How is it you are salt when you go to your job as grocery market cashier?  How are you light in your work of business-to-business marketing?  How are you light as you cut hair, salt as you teach biology to 8th graders, light while you repair air conditioners, salt as you sell used cars, rent apartments, make bank loans, inspect elevators?  Can prison guards and state police be salt or light? Can politicians?  How?  The answer is most likely not, “Go to church.”   The question remains.  Ignore it at missional peril.

I can think of an insider-outsider revision to the joke on St. Peter.  Of course it’s next to impossible to find a priest in heaven.  Where are they, who are they? Poor St. Peter will have to run the length and breadth of the world instead, looking in dementia wards and at border crossings, going into refugee camps,  nursery schools and advertising agencies, knocking at the doors of roofing companies, asking in department stores and coffee shops, talking to chamber maids, public restroom cleaners and truck drivers,bar tenders,  astronomers and physicists.  And when he finds people being salt or light, they won’t have time to answer his question anyway.  That’s the rest of the joke.  There are lots of things that don’t matter in heaven, after all.

 

 

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Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/79425_95945_ENG_HTM.htm has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline http://www.bcponline.org/DailyOffice/compline.html yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Invitation to a Holy Lent

“An Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent,” is the rubric in the liturgy for Lent that catches me, a third of the way into the service, every year.  The words don’t seem to fit together comfortably.  This year, I’m slower as we pass by this point in the service, and in the next few minutes I realize I’ve got the feel of an extra perspective. It’s not a particularly comfortable sensation.

One gets used to feeling like an individual in church accompanying other individuals, all of whom agree (or are polite enough) to say “we” all together.  “We confess”  “we praise” “we pray”  “we thank”—we all engage in rather an amazing act of imagination and intellect at least once a week, forming a union of spirit and body leading to the wholeness of sharing the Eucharist.

And now we are invited in—so here’s a discovery:  Lent isn’t so much a personal obligation as a communal opportunity.   And we are asked to observe—to pay moments of conscious awareness, to be careful and purposeful about what we see and do.  And ‘holy Lent’—those last two words don’t yield easy meaning.  A holy Lent, I think.  What does that really mean?

Holy: healthy; whole; connected; dedicated.  Lent:  the word is rooted in Old English, Old Slavic and Sanskrit as langa tinaz, the way people more than a thousand years ago wrote and said, ‘longer days’:  the longer days of spring.  Other European languages use the word ‘lent’ but only in English does the word have liturgical meaning:  the long 40 days’ observance in spring.

We tend to be more focused on our shared faith in these long forty days ahead.  Lent has shaping power to make us all aware that we are a whole body connected by our worship, dedicated together in the Baptismal Covenant.  I think about church leaders at this time of year.  Most churches have just dedicated, ordained or commissioned their new leadership groups.  As Lent begins, they are just taking up the long holy work of strengthening, discerning and serving the good of the Body of Christ in the community of believers they will serve in the coming year.  Surely they hope to walk all year more closely in step with the members of their congregations than they may have been in the year just past.  This invitation to a Holy Lent is to them as a group, as well as to us as the larger community around them.

When all of us leave a given worship service, we are simultaneously the whole community while we are becoming our individual selves again.  Leaders form this mysterious being of community and personality on the strength of worship experienced the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Leaders may look like they’re just sitting around in a big square shuffling papers, but their real task is to stop thinking of their particular parish as a personal extension of their own interests, their new opportunities to be recognized, their values and concerns.   Then, their task is to stretch into knowing their particular church as a living community with a particular character, particular gifts, a particular call from God to answer, and with work we all have to be doing.

Church leaders find themselves looking at specific decisions with the sense of many eyes and ears simultaneously absorbing impressions at 360 o.  They find themselves with heart and mind stretched well beyond their own personal concerns, and this will probably be uncomfortable for most of them, most of the time they are serving.  Besides, they find themselves with lessening time that constantly fills up with communal To Do lists and To Pray For lists.

At all times, when we talk with our own church leaders, we are talking together about who we are and where we are as God’s holy, called people.  This kind of conversation about being church isn’t somebody else’s responsibility—it’s yours and theirs and ours.  I hope you will sense the gift of community we have in each other as a part of observing a holy Lent.   As we go through the long days of spring, and as church leaders work through 2012, I hope the blessing of health and whole heartedess will come to us more connected in service, more alive in stewardship and more alight in witness to God.

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Right and Wrong in Church Leadership–Johari’s Window at Work

Well, I suppose the title could be a little misleading.  This posting isn’t about specific issues on either side dividing sheep from goats.  This posting is about leaders’ behavior.

I have always been right.  So has my friend across the aisle (in church) who sits on the left hand side.  Where we sit does not represent our politics–just the opposite.  What’s significant is that we both know we’re right, and we share an approach to working together from which we are both likely to learn more than either of us knows, and more than we both know.  Together, we are going to change our church community.  And why will our fellow leaders listen to us?  Because we are working together for the common good.  In this case, the common good is a stronger funeral ministry to the families of members in our congregation who have died.  We are now very bad at connecting all the elements in a caring, reliable way, and this fellow leader and I have begun thinking through the system and possible changes to help the ministry.

Later, when we arrive at a point of disagreement on some issue neither of us has in mind now, he and I are going to remember that we worked together to do something of health for the Body, and we will make more room for each other in the process of discussion.

How will that function, precisely?

We will remember that we didn’t know everything about each other or the work at hand.   We’ll be aware that we proceeded not just with civility but with a stake in learning what we didn’t know about ourselves that the other person knew.   We’ll be willing to be more vulnerable, ourselves, to each other.  And we will remember that the process of opening to the other, as well as the process of being more open to hearing about ourselves from others. 

What applications could there be for this kind of behavior?  I can see three, right off the bat. 

1)  The habit of submitting oneself to others leaders for their view of how one is conducting oneself as a leader–clergy included in this without exception–keeps us from assuming anything absolute about our own views.  Thus, no bishop can say ‘because I say so’ without assessing the effects of her leadership, and no vestry or session member can spew self-righteousness in the parking lot or the meeting, without knowing that it’s just spew and not all corrective insight on offer. 

 2)  The habit of expecting to learn more from others requires an attitude of openness and curiosity, both qualities which are evidence of maturing minds and hearts, not to mention being one of the fruits of the Spirit.  And

 3) We all would be slower to react and instead, stronger in response.  We’d know more about ourselves than our own opinions.  We’d know more of how our convictions affect others. And if we are leaders, we’ll be better at knowing how our convictions can effect true change, instead of blowing hot and then cold and eventually retiring to lukewarm because it’s a more comfortable place for those who don’t look too closely at themselves and their effects on others.

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Do church members argue to stay in touch?

I was turned down for a consulting job a week ago by two church leaders who had called me to talk at length about their need to resolve the conflict in their congregation.  We were in the get-acquainted stage of conversation; no specifics had been disclosed or asked for; the leaders planned to take their research to the session meeting and call me either way, after that.  But I got no call at all, which made me wonder about the payoff leaders (clergy and apostolate alike, new or experienced) get from being angry and staying that way.

I began to visualize the situation and realized I was seeing it without tables and chairs, looking a lot like a fight in a playground.  So I could see that the leaders were on common ground—in fact, they had to be on common ground to stay in conflict.  So maybe they were staying in conflict to stay on common ground.  Even grown up leaders have playground rules about open conflict:  you can’t run up to the top of the slide and call everybody names while keeping the respect of those on your own side of the argument.  Everybody can see you aren’t able to engage your opponents if you’ve climbed the monkey bars to keep out of their reach.  Conflict requires common ground.

So maybe the counter-intuitive idea holds a little water.  Congregations in conflict might stay in conflict because that’s actually one way of realizing or maintaining common ground between the members.  There’s no reason that common ground must be defined as a positive.  It merely indicates that people share something meaningful; disagreement and conflict can both be sources of meaning.  I suggest looking at people who argue and fight as actually being on common ground—they couldn’t engage, otherwise. 

The usual suspects in church conflict are well known—I mean psychology and sin.  In the latter case, clergy and Bible readers have quick (if not ready) words for the sins of congregational fighting:  gossip, dissension, pride, arrogance, selfishness and so on.  As for psychology, family systems theory provides tomes of thought (for those who can get through them and stay awake) on dysfunctional, triangulated congregations in the grip of all things ill.  There is no end of resources for analyzing, diagnosing, studying, approaching and dealing with the behaviors of conflict so described.  But maybe something simpler can connect both lines of thought without over-investing in either one.

A bishop once said to me, “A bitter, toxic congregation is always going to be that way.  They’ll call leaders—clergy and lay—who reinforce them.  I can name six parishes, all more than 200 years old, that are cold, hellish places to belong, and the records show they’ve been like that from the start.”

I said, “But I believe we always have a chance to get it right.”  He looked at me skeptically.  “If we don’t work from that assumption,” I said, “we as Christians have more faith in ourselves as failures than trust in Christ the Head and healer.”  The bishop said, “Christ has eternity.  That’s probably what it would take to change those places.  We don’t have that much time.”

My talks with the bishop lasted six years.  He maintained a realistic position on congregations in conflict:  “They’ve made up their minds to be conflicted and mean.   Maybe they’re even genetically that way.  Inspiring change in such communities is too time-consuming, too likely not to work to be worth the expense.”    Maybe.  He was a wise man and a good bishop and I tend toward optimistic—not to say utopian– theology.

But in those six years I watched him minister to several congregations, all of which were in conflict of long-standing, and I began to wonder if his method of ministry had inspired my insight.  He invested his efforts in connecting the people in simple, basic ways rather than correcting them in complicated therapeutic moves; he gave the members positive means of being attentive to each other’s presence rather than pointing out the problems they were making for themselves—theological or psychological.  It was plain that the difficult members were in conflict and that’s how they felt themselves to be meaningfully connected.  He believed that the connection they needed most was a sense of communion that took them through the mystery of the Eucharist to a sense of belonging that only the Holy Spirit creates and sustains.  I’ve come to think he was right:  some types of conflict are really about holding on till enough people in the community get it—get how the congregation can move into communion as being. Christian leadership does not hope for the elimination or absence of conflict, but works for the actuality of being in communion.

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